For nearly 25 years, Bruce Williams worked halfway across the country doing a job he loved. Then he was fired for being gay. Unemployed in his 60s, he made his way to The Pride Center in Wilton Manors. Now he runs the largest LGBT senior citizens gathering in the country.
Ten years ago, Bruce Williams was working as an Executive Director for a retirement community in Houston. Right before his 25th anniversary with the company, it was sold. Then Bruce was fired for being gay.
Texas is a right-to-work state, which means employees can be fired without being given a reason. Williams — while professional and respectful — never hid his sexuality. One new owner wasn’t happy with Williams’s lifestyle and made it known. That was the end of Bruce in Houston.
“After dedicating nearly a quarter of a century of my life to the same company, I found myself unemployed in my early 60s and looking for work during one of the most disastrous periods of our nation’s economic history,” he said.
Out of work and health insurance, Williams took out COBRA coverage to tide him over. But that’s only temporary and was more expensive than health insurance with his employer. While he had a bit of money stashed away for his retirement, he watched his savings deplete as he was struggling to find work and affordable healthcare in his early 60s. It would be a couple years before he was eligible for Medicare and he couldn’t fathom the idea of being without insurance at his age.
“Small health issues wiped out all the savings I had,” he said. “I lost a lifetime of resources including pension benefits, savings, real estate holdings and even the sight in my right eye.”
Because of his health concerns, Bruce eventually accepted early retirement Social Security benefits, but at a 25 percent reduction. He knows this will be a problem for him later in life.
“Here I am, a 69-year-old gay man who has led a productive and responsible life but who now has to work full-time just to survive,” he said. “It has a devastating effect and working with LGBT seniors, I found out it’s incredibly common.”
Now, Williams is the Senior Services Coordinator at The Pride Center in Wilton Manors. He knows how difficult it is for LGBT seniors to have access to resources they need in their golden years. A few years ago, he showed up to the Center’s weekly Coffee and Conversation events when it was only a handful of attendees. Now he’s running the largest weekly gathering of LGBT seniors in the country.
“I look forward to Tuesday mornings. If I’m having a bad week, the thought of Tuesday morning gets me through it,” he said. “It’s wonderful to be around that group of people. The support and the concern for one another is just incredible.”
And business is booming. Before Williams started working there, there were 30-40 visitors on any given Tuesday. Now, there’s usually between 180-200 visitors weekly. Even with this huge accomplishment, Williams wants to do more to help LGBT seniors, especially when they don’t have enough help themselves.
“It’s widely known that generally, older LGBT seniors have less family support than hetero couples. Some children are wonderful resources and some don’t know you exist,” he said. “Overall, LGBT seniors have fewer support systems, lesser income and fewer resources.”
When he first started volunteering with the Center, Williams was looking to start an assisted living project for LGBT seniors. Eventually, that project turned into the Senior Health Expo, which keeps hitting record numbers year after year. Since LGBT seniors have less resources than their hetero counterparts, community support is vital. That’s why he’s constantly working on events and projects for seniors at The Pride Center, hoping to make a bigger impact than yesterday.
“As a society, we have made great strides in LGBT awareness and rights that today’s LGBT seniors never expected to see in their lifetimes,” he said. “The fight is far from over and I fear we need to prepare ourselves for a significant backlash in response to the gains we have attained.”
While same-sex marriage is a huge gain, Williams thinks there’s more to be done.
“We now need to focus our efforts toward gaining equality in areas of healthcare, housing and employment so that old people like me don’t have to go to bed at night hoping to die in their sleep.”